The media perception is that engineers are not as in tune with sustainability concepts as other professionals. But that’s not the case. Engineers tend to downplay their role in the innovation and development of sustainable efficiencies, but they have made big contributions.
In 1908, engineer-geologist William A. Smith said, “Engineering is the science of economy, of conserving the energy, kinetic and potential provided and stored up by nature for the use of man. It is the business of engineering to utilize this energy to the best advantage, so that there may be the least possible waste.”
During the Industrial Revolution, inventors and engineers developed some of the prototypes of today’s industries, machines and gadgets. Those included the internal combustion engine, electric-power generation and primitive forms of telecommunications and aviation.
The initial versions of these machines were bulky and inefficient from a natural resources standpoint. Industrial plants and electric power-generation facilities were not friendly to the environment by today’s standards. They also had negative visual and land-use impacts.
For example, early radios and amplifiers used vacuum tubes that were bulky—nearly the size of an ice cream cone—and used a lot of metal, high-strength glass and ceramics. The combined circuits required amps worth of electricity and generated a lot of heat. Today, the same circuit occupies the size of a penny, the entire system consumes a millionth of the power and generates little heat.
The same can be said about the first computers. They occupied large rooms and required massive air conditioning. The systems of the 1970s had one trillionth of the computing power that your average household notebook offers today. They also required extensive use of paper products and personnel time to input data and wait for results.
The collaboration of electrical, mechanical and process engineers found ways to make electronic devices more efficient, reducing environmental impacts and boosting productivity.
One of my school district clients told me that all of their new facilities will employ geothermal systems due to the reduced cost of energy and maintenance. Even though the initial cost is higher than a conventional system, the long-term, total cost is expected to be attractive.
One can also point to engineered improvements in internal combustion engines. These include gasoline, diesel or natural-gas-fueled, land-based vehicles, aircraft or even aerospace conveyances. The use of lightweight components that boost fuel efficiency and save natural resources also improves safety. Options available for electric-power generation now include solar-electric cells, windmills and water systems as well as nuclear and hydroelectric power.
The civil engineering community continues to be part of the sustainability equation, finding ways to use recycled materials to build America’s infrastructure. Asphalt and concrete are recycled to make new roads and provide an alternative to aggregates extracted from quarries or gravel pits. Reinforced steel used for bridges on Interstate 25 through Denver and Colorado Springs was recycled. Steel from the demolition of Mile High Stadium was reused for railroad rails. Waste from power plants (fly ash, kiln dust) improves pavement subgrades or reduces the amount of cement needed to make concrete. The development of alternative water-quality systems for stormwater control has reduced the need for massive drainage conveyance or storage structures. Increases in the strength of steel, concrete and composite materials save natural resources and prolong the life of structures.
Engineers continue to develop designs that maximize the efficient use of resources and provide durable structures, systems and infrastructure at an affordable cost.
That, in a nutshell, is sustainability.